If Thirty Is The New Twenty, Then Defense Is The New Offense And The Revs Are More Fun To Watch Than Barcelona, plus An Interview With Jay Heaps.
Posted by tonybiscaia on September 4, 2009
A VIEW FROM THE FORT by Jim Dow
While the New England Revolution have taken 17 out of 27 possible points over their past nine matches to charge into serious playoff contention or perhaps better put, avoiding relegation, U.S. of A. style, the general sense amongst the die-hards is that this edition of the team is far less fun to watch than the high-scoring squads of Cancela, Dempsey, Dorman, Noonan, Joseph, Ralston and Twellman.
Certainly that group of front players who graced the crappy Gillette grass and subsequently the equally feckless false turf pinged the ball about with a grace and style not much seen in the U.S. domestic first flight, equaling even the storied D.C. United of the first years of MLS. Four of the principals of that erstwhile goal production machine are long gone, leaving only the rampant Joseph and dexterous Ralston regularly suiting up. And with Twellman perpetually, possibly permanently on the shelf, the run of offensive bad news has served to obscure the emerging good news, that this current iteration of the New England Revolution is at once potent and eminently watchable at the back.
To further the pall last winter’s departure of yet another high profile player, Rhode Island’s version of the impeccable Sir Bobby Moore, Michael Parkhurst, left the Foxboro faithful in turn cursing the spinning fates, the seemingly bottomless pits of Scandinavian ready money and concurrently long-suspected Kraft family cheapness. The latter notion, while anecdotal has, rightly or wrongly, served to poison many people’s view of how the Revos are run.
Yet with all of this from where I sit, fifteen rows up behind the north goal, it has been genuine fun to watch the current back four of Jay Heaps, Emmanuel Osei, Darius Barnes and Kevin Alston attack every ball and opposing player who ventures into their half of the pitch. Back in the day, when Michael Parkhurst was in charge, the interceptions were calculated; rapier-like, sometimes-languid flicks of the toe and thrusts of the hip with the hard play hidden behind velvet gloves and feet. Much of the backline work of the 05-07 Revolution depended on anticipation, reading and response, as opposed to the present “Inglorious Bestard” mode of full bore aggression, even intimidation.
Which is not to accuse the current Revolution defenders of being cloggers and cheap shot artists, far from it as each of the starting flat back four brings skillful aspects to their game. Heaps and Osei play three to five inches above their stature winning almost every aerial challenge and both seem to have developed a nose for the tackle as well. Osei may do a few too many Maradona moves in the eighteen-yard box but from a spectator’s point of view a defender taking on and beating offensive players with the ball is worth the price of admission, despite the fact that it surely accelerates the gray on the gaffer’s carrot top.
Darius Barnes times tackles like a gold-plated Rolex and Alston, well, name me another gringo fullback who can venture forward with equal panache, plus the fact that he is quite willing to manhandle even the likes of Juan Pablo Angel to get his point across, that being that the back third of the pitch is his patch, at least on the right side. Add to this, three of these players are on the upside of their careers, which is to say that under the tutelage of Nicol & Co. they will surely add to their individual games. And along those lines, what better role model than the resident backline greybeard, Jay Heaps who could be said to be having his best season ever at age 33. While he may well be benefiting from playing four at the back, he has managed the switch from right to left fullback and has parlayed his extraordinary athleticism and a now wise old head to serve as a model of how the Revolution academy, senior division, offers players the chance to hone their games and grow their skills.
Critics of MLS progress have pointed to the fact that an increasing number of rookies are holding down starting positions across the league. It is argued that the new blood isn’t an improvement over what it has replaced, just younger, faster and, most importantly, cheaper. In the case of New England, while the latter three points may be true, the jury is way, way out on the first, in fact the emergence of Kevin Alston and Darius Barnes, along with the signing of Emmanuel Osei, has caused Stevie Nicol to abandon his Parkurst-inspired 3-5-2 in favor of a flat back four featuring pace, aggression and man-marking across the board. When you add the colorful, stylish and effective Matt Reis to the mix you have a back five that is every bit as flashy, fun and visually spectacular as the front five were back in the day.
Certainly the effectiveness of the New England defenders is greatly aided by the midfield graft of Joseph, Larentowicz and Phelan, in whatever combination plays on the day. Further, the emphasis on defenders has been partly brought on by the dearth of proper forward play in 2009. A combination of bad luck, poor planning, even indecision has conspired to blunt what could/should have been a potent attack. If some healthy combination of Dube, Jankauskas and Twellman could play regularly at the front we might well see equal excitement in all parts of the field. And while Joseph and Ralston continue to prove that they are among the best all around footballers to ever play in MLS, one can only dream about what this team might be like with everyone playing their proper position.
With all of this in mind I spoke with Jay Heaps, the senior member of the Revolution backline after training.
JIM: I’m writing about two things, first of all career longevity as it applies to you and, second of all, playing with the kids, plus a new veteran in the backline. My argument is that traditionally the Revolution have been a team where you concentrate on watching the front six (+/-), that is, you go to the games to watch the attack, the goal makers and takers and the defense is in support. Now, watching the four of you in the rear guard, plus Reis, you have become the most entertaining part of the team because each of you have a distinct style and I’m wondering how long that has taken to develop and integrate and even if that observation is at all true in your mind?
JAY: I would say that in the past couple of years we’ve built a good kind of mentality, myself and Reis have been the longest at the back but I think because we have a good culture back there, starting years ago, the new guys that have come in starting with Darius (Barnes) and (Emmanuel) Osei and Kevin (Barnes), having to play a lot of minutes right away, I think they felt that a little bit and then they have added their own spark to it, I mean Osei, he’s got his own style and Kevin and Darius are two up and comers that get better every game. That’s what’s fun for me, getting to watch Kevin and Darius get better and better.
JIM: But by the same token, it seems like playing with four at the back instead of three has allowed you to attack more.
JAY: Sure, yes I think it has, I’ve always wanted to attack and then we got into the three (at the back formation), which was better for our team. I think, for me, when we were playing three at the back I always respected the fact that Stevie (Nicol) knew what was good for our team and that’s why it was obviously the right move for our team (at the time) and this is the right move for our team (now). I think that is what is so great about Stevie as a coach is that he sees what his players are going to do best and that’s how he creates his team. For me to go from three (at the back) to four, it was the best option for our team but having been in a four this year I really enjoyed it, especially on the left but some games on the right (as well) but I enjoy both sides with kind of a integral connection with the midfielders and then also you get a little bit more one on one in that situation against some midfielders and some faster guys rather than always against a forward.
JIM: When I used the term “attack,” yes, you guys do a lot of overlapping now, as well as going forward with the ball at your feet but there is also a way that the four of you attack the ball when you are defending that seems to be much different than before, again, is that a fair observation?
JAY: Yeah, I think because Darius and Osei provide a good kind of depth for us that Kevin and I, (as well) as those guys, we’re playing an aggressive style, we don’t want the other teams to get the ball in our half, so if there is an opportunity for us to clip it, or get stuck in or whatever it is, we’re doing that and I think that’s how I’ve always wanted to play and… Parky (Michael Parkhurst) may have been a little different than that because he read the game so well and he did different things but with the guys we have back there we have to play athletic and attacking the ball is part of that.
JIM: To use a basketball term, you are “ball hawking…”
JAY: Yeah, exactly, exactly…
JIM: …Where, as you said, in the past you were reading the game which you guys did very, very well but this is a different style which leads to the second line of questioning, longevity. I’m coming from an experience of having worked out 80 minutes a day for almost forty years and I’m always tired from it and always have been, even when I was younger and my question is you guys train “x” number of hours and I know that players also do other fitness stuff, you lift, you run, whatever else. How do you keep from not just being constantly exhausted?
JAY: I enjoy the exhaustion, you know what I mean? I think that it is important for me and I’ve learnt this over time, if I want to do anything extra, if I want to get a lift in, I do it before training because after training I’m going to be too tired.
JIM: Are you a morning person?
JAY: Not so much, I’ll come in at 8:30 and do a lift here but that is something I’ve learned about my body, I wouldn’t be as motivated to after training so I like to get it in on the off days or before training… I think for me, I don’t get exhausted when I’m out here because I love it, I love to compete so much, but as the day goes on you can definitely feel the heat if you don’t hydrate right it will get you but when I was single and young, I used to come home and take a two hour nap and now I can’t do that so you kind of learn how to fight through it.
JIM: But, for example, do you ever have games where you are standing there and it is the middle of the second half and you realize “oh crap, I ran too much this week.”
JAY: No, That’s another thing I’ve learned. (about my) body, especially if I’ve been training a tad (too much) I’ll realize, all right my muscles are (tired), I’ll be smart with my body. Like last week, I had a little hamstring issue, I knew not to push it too hard, especially leading up to the Seattle game, two training (sessions) before I was about 80%, so days before games you’ve got to be smart with your preparation for each match and how you are going to play. But yes, there have been times in a game where I’ve gone, “oh my god, I’m exhausted right now,” because they (the other team) are pouring it on. But I think that’s one thing that I love, for whatever reason in a game you can feel the emotion, the passion, the adrenaline, it’s in there so if you can get forward or get back and you have to do it, you do it.
JIM: So with that in mind, when young players come in, is there anybody writing a program for them, to give them some insights and a timetable?
JAY: No, not really, I think that the best athletes are the ones that figure out what they need, so you see some of the younger guys running today, where I was sort of the older school where you play yourself into fitness, there are a lot of different ways (to go) about it and I think that it is how you develop yourself as a player, I know that my off season rituals have really gotten tough, I work really hard in the off season. Some guys don’t, some guys save it for preseason, I think everyone has kind of their own style.
Our trainer does work with us; Sean Kupiec does give us programs and he’s there for questions, but for the most part I think it is the (individual) player taking it on.
JIM: And are the programs structured for each individual?
JAY: Yeah, there are individual programs and also it is a special concept for each particular position, your body weight, your size, how much you should be doing, what positions you play. In the years before Sean came it was all on your own, so you kind of learned how to sink or swim, you figure out what your body needs day in and day out.
JIM: I know that Paul Mariner has said a number of times that one of the big shocks for him when he first came to work with U.S. athletes was how much they are aware of themselves as products or mechanisms, shall we say, as opposed to the culture he came from where it was multiple pints after the match on the bus home.
JAY: I think that is one of the things in growing up here, you take care of yourself, I think it is instilled in us that the next tier of athletes have to take care of themselves, I think that we are asked to do a lot more, not a lot more than Paul and Stevie did, but I’m saying for ourselves to compete, athletes are getting stronger so to compete now your have to (really) take care of your body, everyone else is doing it so you have to stay with it (as well).
JIM: It is a much more full time job.
JIM: With your experience playing on the National Team and in the Gold Cup, what would you quantify as the difference between the refereeing at that level and the refereeing in MLS?
JAY: I’ll be honest with you, I think there is some great refereeing always, and there is some bad refereeing always but I think for me, there are some great referees in MLS, not that they always have great games. I’m (not bothered by) the little things, you can blow a call, that’s like making a bad pass, it’s going to happen. I guarantee a referee is going to make a bad call, my concern comes in when referees, you notice it in our league a little bit, some of the referees, some of the referees, not all of them, two or three of them are like this, they… are a little antagonistic in the sense of their demeanor with players and that, to me, having been around a long time, it frustrates you and especially in the heat of the moment, the last thing you need is a referee, or a player, not with cool heads. The player is already out there, the referee is in the middle of it, I would say there have been some great refereed games this year, there’s been some great games, there’s been some terrible games and the refs have done the same thing, they’ve had some great games and some terrible games. My concern isn’t (with) the actual calls; it is going to happen, it is in the reactions and how they (could) communicate with us a little bit better, there are only one or two of them that are a little antagonistic. If you question (things) they want to question you even harder and for myself, personally, I start to get, well, now I’m really upset and that is where I get upset. But you know, for the most part, I think that the referees overall have been… from my standpoint, they are tough and there’s things that can be better but from a standpoint of “oh that call’s wrong,” that’s going to be there every week.
JIM: Speaking both as an observer of the game as well as being a player, do you think that the referees ultimately are going to have to protect the skill players more for the league to prosper? That is an argument that gets put forward a lot, with MLS being pretty physical and I’m not certain what the answer is.
JAY: Protecting is one thing, over-refing (sic) is another, you know as a player when someone is trying to crush someone, by my concern comes with something like a penalty kick given to one of the more skilled players, now if he deserves a penalty kick, great but I’m saying if you are protecting him in the box, most defenders aren’t trying to crush the guy in the box, as a player, as an observer of the game and a person that has played, I can tell you when a player is going after (another) player or when it is just a fair challenge and that is, I think, the difference, I want to protect our best players, there’s no question about it. Do I want to see Ralston get kicked? No way, do I want Taylor Twellman getting bumped from behind? No but you also know when players are doing that and when they are not. Rewarding the skilled players? I guess that is the line, you protect them yes, reward them, no. They are going to do what they need to do and they are going to get it done, they are the skilled players for that reason, but if you are grabbing the shirt or pulling on them, you’ve got to protect them in that sense but if you are already anticipating them getting fouled, well, that I don’t like.